Testing Delusions

April 1992By Comments

This year is the twenty-sixth anniversary of the hardest test I ever took. Then, about to graduate from college with an English degree, I had been in school for so long and had liked it so much that I had no particular yearning to go out into the world. Perhaps graduate school was a way to put that off forever, or at least for three or four years, which in those days was the same as forever. So I sat down in a classroom in Houston to take the Graduate Record Examination in literature. Many questions were like this one, taken from a recent study guide for the same test:

Who wrote “On the isles’s lone beach they paid him in silver for their passage out, the stranger having declined to carry them at all except upon that condition; though willing to take every means to insure the due fulfillment of his promise.”
(A) Joseph Conrad (B) Herman Melville (C) Richard Dana (D) Samuel Johnson (E) Robert Louis Stevenson

Well, it isn’t Samuel Johnson, but after that I don’t know now and wouldn’t have known then. On and on the questions came, each succeeding one designed to expose more of my vast ignorance. What are the characteristics of a triolet?  What is synecdoche? Which of the following passages are from Wycherley’s The Country Wife? For years I had been reading and reading, but now all I saw was how much I hadn’t read. Worse still, the things I had read I seemed to have forgotten completely. And there was so much I had not even heard of—didn’t even know I should know!

I left the test despondent, but in retrospect I believe I owe it a great deal. To be a college professor in English meant—if you were going to be any good—gaining through hard work a ready familiarity with the whole history of literature as well as the technical vocabulary and critical theories that underlie scholarship and teaching. And that was exactly what the GRE tested. The very difficulty of the test made it a wake-up call for the effort it would take to master the substance of that profession. If the test had been easier, it also would have been less fair to me. It would have made me think I knew and understood a subject when I didn’t. It would not have tested me; it would have only deluded me.

The Texas Education Agency has recently made its standardized tests less deluding. Last October fewer than half the students who took the “exit level” test, given in the eleventh and twelfth grades, were able to pass all three of the test’s sections, which students must do to receive a high school diploma. The agency claims that the test emphasizes “those areas which improve a student’s ability to think independently, read critically, write clearly, and solve problems logically.” Fair enough, but how difficult are the passages to read critically, and how complicated are the problems to solve logically, when compared with other standard tests?

Despite the low passing rate, my experience with the test in literature makes me wonder if the current TAAS (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) tests are demanding enough.  Soon after taking the exit level test, students will be facing a choice about what to do next with their lives, and very often that choice will require taking another standardized test. Those going on to college will most likely have to take the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test). Anyone wanting to enter the armed forces will have to take a test, and so will many others, from potential cosmetologists to Border Patrol agents. If the TAAS test is as hard as or only slightly easier than these tests, there is no problem. But if the TAAS test is much easier, then passing it means little, since the student might still be unprepared to pass the tests that are the entrance to the next stage of life. A too-easy TAAS would not be a test so much as a cruel delusion by the school system of the students who were counting on it.

I got information on the TAAS from the Texas Education Agency. At a bookstore I bought a heavy load of study guides and the like for the SAT as well as for tests for a variety of occupations to compare with the TAAS. Here is a question typical of the English Language Arts Writing Objec-tives section of the TAAS:

In its first week of operation, the new venture has been a ______.
(A) success (B) successful (C) successfully (D) successive

Here is the kind of question that appears on the SAT:

Cunningham is no ______; on the contrary, there is a certain ______ in his acceptance of the political pieties of our time.
(A) rebel . . . defiance (B) conformist . . . apathy (C) zealot . . . complacency (D) conservative . . . orderliness (E) hypocrite . . . deceptiveness

How elementary the TAAS is compared with the SAT. Here is the beginning of a text such as those used to test reading comprehension in the TAAS:

Margarita Cordova joined the Monday lunchtime crowd of students waiting to enter the cafeteria at Rivera High School. For a few minutes she listened impatiently to her junior classmates talk about the upcoming junior trip.

The next two sentences are from a reading comprehension text in a recent SAT. They assume a much more sophisticated reader:

An architect’s stupidity is more dangerous than any other, for its inescapable influence crushes the sensitive individual by the disorder of proportions. It is not a matter of good taste or bad; it is a matter of the site that exhausts, that en-venoms, that debases, that casts its spells and curses in silence, in secret.

I understand that the TAAS is an exit test for high school and that the SAT, as an entrance test for college, should be harder than the TAAS. But the SAT is so much harder that the TAAS isn’t even remotely on the same level. In fact, it is so easy that it doesn’t measure up against the test to become a Border Patrol agent. Here are the first two sentences of a reading comprehension test from a practice manual for that test. Someone who can just keep his head above the fluff about Margarita Cordova might very well sink beneath the weight of the demands of this passage:

The coloration of textile fabrics composed of cotton and wool generally requires two processes, as the process used in dyeing wool is seldom capable of fixing the color upon cotton. The usual method is to immerse the fabric in the requisite baths to dye the wool and then to test the partially dyed material in the manner found suitable for cotton.

The mathematical sections of the TAAS test are not quite as simple as the verbal ones, and indeed only 56 percent of the students passed this part of the exit level test last October, compared with 77 percent for the writing section and 71 percent for the reading section. Still, the TAAS test is not difficult compared with tests these same students will soon need to take. Below are two math questions from the TAAS. Few, if any, questions are more difficult than these:

What is the perimeter of a rectangle whose length is 12 centimeters and whose width is 8 centimeters?
(A) 20cm (B) 24cm (C) 32cm (D) 40cm

If 3m — 6 = -21, what is the value of m?
(A) -19 (B) -15 (C) -5 (D) -1

Never mind the SAT test, whose math section is a challenge for all but fluid mathematicians. One would hope that a graduate of a Texas high school would know enough to pass the armed forces entrance examination. But compare the TAAS questions above with the following ones from the armed forces test:

(2x + 4)(3x + 5) =__
(A) 6x2 + 20 (B) 22x + 20
(C) 6x2 + 22x + 20
(D) 6x2 + 22x — 20

If 1 — A = A — 1, then find 2/A
(A) 4 (B) 2 (C) 1 (D) 0

How many digits are in the square root of 15,129?
(A) 2 (B) 3 (C) 4 (D) 5

These questions aren’t difficult in themselves, but they are several levels of difficulty above the TAAS test. Still, that test, too easy though it may be, is not the villain. The TAAS can test only the curriculum the students have been asked to master. If the entrance requirements for some of our most basic jobs—private in the Army, for example—are stiffer than the requirements in our schools, then our schools are not demanding enough. And they, as well as the TAAS test, are a cruel delusion.

And, by the way, the answer to the first question is Herman Melville. The answers to the other questions are A, C, D, C, C, B, and B.

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